Russian literature is often regarded from one of two points of view: the first, while perhaps conscious of its reputation for psychological depth, spiritual insight, and political allegory approach the weighty tomes of a Tolstoy or a Dostoevsky with a kind of existential dread not unlike what one might experience when having the tools of an 18th century dentist uncovered before one’s eyes while being asked to open your mouth and say “ahhhh”. In this view, the rewards, though there may be some, are not worth the mental slog required to surmount such literary obstacles. To those of the second point of view (of which I count myself one), Russian literature is a four course meal prepared by a master chef that fills both mind and soul with insight into the human condition. 19th century tsarist Russia invariably had its problems, but for a time it produced a literary culture the likes of which had been unseen since the poets, playwrights, and philosophers of ancient Greece. For both types, I have good news and bad. The good news, particularly for those of you who identify with the first type of person, is that Ivan Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons may provide the perfect introductory work into the rich, varied world of Russian literature; but for those of the second type, the bad news is that I find the work ultimately to be undeserving of its prestigious reputation. Allow me to elaborate.
The controversy surrounding its publication in the mid-1800’s is undoubtedly also the reason which has led to its reputation among the literary elite, and that being embodied in the character of Bazarov. It was Bazarov the nihilist, with his newfangled philosophies, which sent shivers down the spines of the older, conservative Russian bourgeoisie, and it was Bazarov the nihilist who in the novel as well as in Russia itself, sent shivers down the spines of the mid-level landowners–the liberal democrats (not necessarily to be confused with the modern American understanding of the term)–and it is indeed Bazarov the nihilist who sets the novel apart from its literary contemporaries. While I know of few people in modern society who would openly identify themselves as nihilists (besides perhaps the Germans from The Big Lebowski), it is nevertheless the philosophy which in recent years has begun to so thoroughly decimate modern popular culture. The embrace of a kind of cosmological cynicism and complete distrust of any institution or moral philosophy can be found at the heart of such overrated filmmakers as Christopher Nolan, David Fincher, Steven Soderbergh, and several other critical darlings. What was seen as controversial and new in the mid-19th century is now old, tired, and caustic, having long since overstayed its welcome as its damaging effects have been felt all throughout the 20th century.
The fallacy, though, of course is in the notion that nihilism (from the Latin, meaning a belief in nothing) was somehow a new philosophy even in the mid-19th century, when of course it was not new at all, but a very old mistake given fresh life by a new generation. It is here that the generational conflict implied by the title of the novel comes to bear. The older generation adopting what might be seen as the traditional Russian values, while the younger generation embodied by Bazarov and his friend, Arkady, adopt a philosophical non-conformity which challenges everything for the sake of challenging it. The problem with nihilism (of which there are many) is that it has no ideal. It believes in nothing and therefore strives for nothing but the destruction of all, including itself. As a philosophy, nihilism is unsustainable, and it is in the moments in which Bazarov’s actions appear to defy his beliefs (his love of Anna Sergeevna, the flirtation with Fenichka, or his aiding of Pavel Petrovich after their duel), that he becomes a truly human figure.
I have spoken much of the philosophy, but little of the actual novel. Turgenev understands ideas (even bad ones), and even more so he understands human behavior, these are the novel’s strengths. There is a great believability and a psychological insight seemingly distinctive to Russian writers into the behavior these characters. His prose, however, comes across as being rather stiff and even forced at times, flaws which while bothersome, I am willing to attribute as much to the translation (I read the Oxford World’s Classic version translated by Richard Freeborn) as to the author. Sadly, though, I cannot help but feel that Turgenev was hopelessly outclassed by his contemporaries. He has not the poetry of Pushkin, the humor of Gogol, the depth of Dostoevsky, the imaginative scope of Tolstoy, or the lyricism of Chekhov. To be fair, though, he does have one advantage which few of the others have and that is brevity. At just over 200 pages, Fathers and Sons reads like a novella in comparison to some of the more monumental works by Gogol, Dostoevsky, or in particular Tolstoy. This is why I advocate it as introductory course to Russian literature, though not necessarily as one of its high points.
A question I kept asking myself as I was reading was: how did Turgenev feel about his characters? Was he advocating the philosophy of Bazarov, or merely as a novelist attempting to honestly create a character out of the stuff of humanity: ideas, philosophy, behavior, inconsistencies? And while I cannot be sure (it probably doesn’t matter anyway), I am led to one of the most beautiful passages in the entire book, for which I will provide no context:
“Can their prayers and their tears be fruitless? Can love, sacred, devoted love, not be all-powerful? Oh, no! No matter how passionate, sinning, rebellious is the heart hidden in the grave, the flowers growing on it look at us serenely with their innocent faces; they speak to us not only of that eternal peace, of the great peace of ‘impassive’ nature; they speak to us also of eternal reconciliation and a life everlasting…”